I Believe in Altruism

Altruism, selfless sacrifice for the benefit of others, is something that I keep coming back to because plays such an important role in what it means to be human. It’s easy and tempting to make the argument that everything humans do is motivated by selfishness. For example:

You push a child off the train tracks, saving her life while seriously risking your own. Was your motivation selfish? If the child wasn’t related to you then, evolutionarily speaking, your action was clearly altruistic. You reduced your chances of reproduction while increasing hers. Case closed.

Where things get more sticky is when you consider the psychological aspects of the situation. Your motive could be to avoid embarrassment or, assuming you survive, to make yourself look better to the people on the train platform. Even if you didn’t survive, you could have the motivation of assuring your legacy. If it wasn’t that, if there was no one to witness your act and the child was too young to remember it, maybe it was that you have an internal moral code that you pride yourself on following and you want to uphold it in order to have personal internal peace the next day and for the rest of your life.

If it’s so easy to explain away such a selfless seeming action, Is it possible for someone to act in such a way that isn’t primarily motivated by personal gain? Does it matter?

It matters to me because it says something about the goodness of our species. Either we live in an Ayn Rand-like world where, at our best, we constantly optimize for our own happiness, indifferent to anything outside of that selfish goal. Or if psychological altruism is possible, we could live in a much more interconnected world where true humanity means we are concerned about others, even if it means we might sometimes suffer for our consideration.

I believe in altruism. I think it’s silly to say that because doing good anonymously for other people at a cost to yourself makes you feel good, that feeling good is the strongest motive for doing good. If there’s a hierarchy of motives, feeling good about doing good fits in somewhere, but I don’t think it is always the top motive.

To return to the example of the child on the train tracks—does it not seem ridiculous to say that someone who anonymously saves the child could only do so begrudgingly, simply because they’d feel guilty later if they didn’t? I think so. I don’t think people are always so cold and calculating to the point that when we make a snap decision we always do it with selfish motives. I think that we can make concern for others our highest priority and act altruistically.